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Earth Observation Data Continuity and New Approach to Climate Change Debate Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Ensuring the continuity of data streams from earth observation satellites and changing the framework of the debate over climate change were key messages from yesterday's Forum for Earth Observations V. The Forum was sponsored by the Alliance for Earth Observations and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

Focusing on the need to create a national strategy for environmental intelligence, the day-long meeting brought together business and government representatives to talk about the importance of sustained environmental observations. There was a general understanding that today's economic situation means that everyone must do more with less. Nonetheless, speakers emphasized that such data are needed not only for research into climate change and government intelligence analyses of global changes in supplies of food, water and energy, but also to support businesses like the insurance industry.

Although the meeting's emphasis was on satellite observations, William Vass of Liquid Robotics reminded the audience that the Earth is 70 percent ocean and robotic platforms that can operate autonomously at sea for two years, like those developed by his company, are another method of obtaining data.

One business use of remote sensing data highlighted at the Forum was the insurance industry. Carl Hedde of Munich RE reviewed the worldwide natural disasters that have occurred just in the first five months of 2011 -- from earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan to tornadoes and floods in the United States. Insured losses in the United States alone from these events total more than $11 billion, he said. His company thinks climate change is one factor in the weather-related events and is investing in climate change research itself.

Climate change is an emotional topic. Sharon Hays, Vice President for the Office of Science and Engineering at CSC and a former congressional and White House staffer, called for a new way to communicate about climate change issues. "What we're doing doesn't work," Hays stressed. Too much attention is focused on whether it is human induced or natural instead of what needs to be done to adapt to it, she said.

Another key message was the need for public-private partnerships between businesses and the government to effectively utilize environmental data. Engaging with corporate executives to help them understand the impact climate change could have on their businesses is one step that is needed, Hays pointed out. "Did you know that all of our data centers are located in the same 100 year flood plain?" she asked. What happens when that becomes a 50 year flood plain, or 25 year flood plain is critical to businesses. She challenged the audience to think about "how we shift the debate," and "how do we stimulate the climate service industry?"

Hays was on Capitol Hill in 1996 just after Republicans took control of the House after decades in the minority. She recalled that doubling funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was a big issue at the time. Increasing NIH funding to that extent "seemed like fantasy," but what persuaded the Republican leadership, including then-Speaker and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was hearing from biotech and other companies about how that government investment would create jobs. It was not about scientists and the data they needed. The key is appealing to "pocketbook issues," she said, and harnessing non-traditional users of environmental observations to make them advocates for that data -- "Then we start to change the debate."

The meeting was a love fest for the venerable Landsat series of medium resolution land imaging data. The first Landsat was launched by NASA in 1972. The most recent, Landsat 7, has been in orbit since 1999. It and Landsat 5 (1984) continue to operate with partial capabilities well past their design lifetimes. The need to ensure continuity of that data series was stressed throughout the day by speakers both from the public and private sectors. Many also heralded the 2008 U.S. Government decision to make Landsat data freely available to anyone.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), manages distribution and archiving of Landsat data and its role in the program will change dramatically if Congress agrees. David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), enthusiastically told the audience that in the FY2012 budget request his department has proposed taking over the Landsat program "lock, stock and barrel" from NASA. The budget request proposes that USGS not only take the primary role for the next in the series, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) or Landsat 8 - scheduled for launch in 2012 - but also initiate planning for Landsat 9 and 10.

House Approps Approves FY2012 Defense Appropriations Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2012 defense appropriations bill today.

The committee adopted 13 amendments during full committee markup, but none affect space programs. The subcommittee recommendations stand.

In total, the bill provides $530 billion in non-emergency spending, $17 billion more than the current fiscal year, but $9 billion less than the President's request for FY2012. It also provides $119 billion in emergency spending for the "global war on terror." That's a total of $649 billion.

Gingrich, Pawlenty Offer Views on Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Thanks to Jeff Foust over at Spacepolitics.com for watching the Republican presidential debate last night and noting that a question was asked about the space program.

According to Jeff's account, the question to the candidates was what role should the government play in the future of space exploration. Former Rep. Newt Gingrich said he favors more privatization, while former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty called for the space program to be "refocused." Jeff provides a transcipt of the entire exchange on his website.

House Approps Markup Will Bring Mostly Bad News for DOD Space Programs, Blast EASE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2012 defense appropriations bill tomorrow (Tuesday, June 14) at 10:00 am. If it adopts the recommendations of its defense subcommittee, it will be a mix of good and not so good news -- mostly the latter -- for the department's space programs.

The subcommittee's recommendations are contained in a draft of the committee's report that is already published on the committee's website along with a copy of the draft bill. (The report is not labeled "draft," but full committee markup is not until tomorrow and committee staff confirm that it is the working document that the full committee will use at its meeting. Amendments are possible.)

Examples of the programs recommended for cuts by the subcommittee are the following:

  • $225 million for the Defense Weather Satellite System (still entitled NPOESS in the table), $220 million below the President's request
  • $351 million for development of the GPS III operational control segment, $48 million less than the request
  • $413 million for the GPS III space segment, $50 million below the request
  • $1.6 billion for procurement of four EELVs, $174 million below the request
  • $355 million for Advanced EHF milsatcom, $67 million below the request
  • $29.5 million for Operationally Responsive Space, $57 million below the request
  • $221 million for Space Situation Awareness Systems, $53 million below the request (-$40 million from Space Fence and -$12 million from SBSS)
  • $79 million for JSPOC mission system, $40 million below the request
  • $71 million for space technology, $44.5 million below the request
  • $39 million for advanced spacecraft technology, $35 million below the request
  • $34 million for Rocket Systems Launch Program, $124.5 million below the request

At least two programs, conversely, would get increases.

  • $803.7 million for procurement of two Wideband Global System satellite, $335 million above the request
  • $107.7 million for GPS IIF production readiness, $40 million above the request

Many others, like the Space-Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS) system, would be funded at the same level as requested, in that case $622 million. After many, many years of schedule delays and cost growth, the first geostationary SBIRS satellite was finally launched last month.

In a lengthy section beginning on p. 185, the subcommittee sharply criticized DOD's proposed Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency (EASE) acquisition approach to satellite systems. EASE assumes the availability of advance appropriations instead of the year-by-year appropriations that are typically provided. The subcommittee said it was "disappointed" that DOD developed EASE without input from Congress and found it "alarming" that DOD based its entire budget request for space programs on Congress accepting EASE. "The Committee does not approve the acquisition plan using the advance appropriations concept," the subcommittee report states.

Rep. Giffords -- New Photos, Hospital Release Could be Soon

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Pia Carusone, chief of staff to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), told the Arizona Republic on Thursday that the Congresswoman continues her recovery and is not yet ready to return to her congressional duties, but as one more step forward, two new photos of Rep. Giffords were posted on her website this weekend.

Wearing glasses and with very short dark hair, the woman in the photos on the right side of the website may not be immediately recognizable, but the bright smile is clearly the same as in the photo of Rep. Giffords at the top of the site. The Associated Press reported that the photos were taken on May 17 and were being released "amid the possibility that Giffords could be released from the hospital in the coming weeks."

Events of Interest: Week of June 13-17, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may of interest in the week ahead. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Times and dates for congressional activities are subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

During the Week

The House and Senate are both in session this week. Both will work on funding for the Department of Defense (DOD). The full House Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2012 Defense Appropriations bill on Tuesday. The Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the FY2012 DOD budget request on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, on the authorization front, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) subcommittees and then the full commitee will markup their version of the National Defense Authorization Act during the week. The meeting of the Strategic Forces subcommittee (where most space programs are handled) and the full commitee are closed, so are not listed below, but for those who are interested, that subcommittee markup is on Tuesday at 10:30 am and full committee markup is Wednesday-Thursday, with Friday as an "if needed" date. The House passed the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act in May, but the Senate version is expected to be quite different.

Monday-Wednesday, June 13-15

Tuesday, June 14

Tuesday-Thursday, June 14-16

Wednesday, June 15

Thursday, June 16

Thursday-Friday, June 16-17

California Space Authority Ceases Operations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The California Space Authority ceased operations yesterday according to the Santa Maria Times. CSA was headquarted in Santa Maria, CA, which is near Vandenberg Air Force Base. According to its website, CSA's purpose was to "retain, grow and create California space enterprise."

Recently CSA was focussing on building a $220 million California Space Center for educational and tourism purposes. The most recent plan was to build it in nearby Lompoc, CA, and the mayor of Lompoc told the newspaper that he plans to continue that effort without the CSA.

Financial troubles apparently were the root cause of the decision to dissolve the CSA. Many staff had been laid off already, and the Executive Director, former congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, and Deputy Director Janice Dunn, had voluntarily cut their salaries in half, according to the Times.





Update on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Although she was able to travel to Florida for husband Mark Kelly's space shuttle launch in May, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) is not yet ready to return to the grueling job of representing Arizona's 8th district according to her chief of staff.

Pia Carusone gave an interview to the Arizona Republic in which she frankly discussed the Congresswoman's recovery from a gunshot wound to the head during an assassination attempt on January 8. Carusone pointed out that the best way for doctors to know the extent of the physical damage to her brain is by using an MRI, but that option is not available to Rep. Giffords because metal bullet fragments remain in her brain.

Rep. Giffords can communicate, but not always with words. "She is borrowing upon other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express," Carusone is quoted as saying.

As for Giffords's future, Carusone said that the only legal timetable for making a decision about whether she will run for her congressional seat again is May 12, 2012 when petitions for re-election are due. "We're about halfway through the process that is the most important for recovery," Carusone said, the first 12-14 months after a brain injury. Doctors remain optimistic that Giffords will make a "tremendously good recovery," but exactly what her condition will be is unknown. "All that we can hope for is that she won't plateau today and that she'll keep going...," Carusone told the newspaper.

Chinese Probe Departs Lunar Orbit for "Outer Space"; No Plans for Human Trips to Moon For Now

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Chinese news sources reported yesterday that China's Chang'e 2 probe has left lunar orbit and is headed for "outer space about 1.5 million km from the earth." One of the reports added that China has "no plan or timetable for a manned moon landing for now."

Chang'e 2 arrived at the Moon last fall and has been mapping the lunar surface. China's official Xinhua news agency reported that the probe completed its main tasks by April 1 and then conducted two additional lunar tasks: taking photos of the Moon's north and south poles, and descending to within 15 kilometers (km) of the surface to obtain high resolution images of the Bay of Rainbows "the proposed landing ground for future lunar missions." China is planning to send a robotic lander/rover to the Moon as well as a sample return mission. The most recent dates mentioned for those missions are 2013 and 2017, respectively.

Once those tasks were successfully completed, Chinese scientists decided that Chang'e 2 could be used for "additional exploratory tasks." Xinhua said the probe is headed to a distance of 1.5 million kilometers and China Daily added that the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point is the destination. The China Daily report quoted a Chinese scientist as saying it is a point in space where several U.S. and European satellites are located, but most of those satellites are at the L1 Lagrange point. Europe does have two spacecraft (Herschel and Planck) at L2, and NASA's much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope will be placed there.

Chang'e is the name of a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the Moon.

China's plans for sending astronauts -- or "taikonauts" -- to the Moon remain unclear. Many statements have been made in Chinese news sources over the years by various Chinese officials or academics that they are or are not planning human lunar missions. This Xinhua story says they have no such plans for now, but as with all such statements in the press, it is difficult to discern government policy. One way to gauge their plans is to look at what they actually are doing and there is no evidence that they are in any rush to send people beyond low Earth orbit. China's slow but steady human spaceflight program appears focused on steadily increasing experience in low Earth orbit and creating a small space station there.

Voyager Data Suggest New Paradigm of Solar System's Edge

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Thirty three years ago, when the twin Voyager spacecraft departed Earth and headed out into the solar system, it would have been difficult to imagine they would still be sending data back to Earth today, much less continuing to revolutionize scientific thinking.

Designed to explore the outer planets, the spacecraft have long since left them in the dust and transformed themselves into the vanguard of discovery in the field of heliophysics - the study of our Sun and its influence on Earth and the rest of the solar system.

As shown in illustrations available on NASA's website, the Sun spews out particles that soar through the solar system - the solar wind. The Sun has a magnetic field, like Earth, and its magnetic lines form the solar wind into an elongated shape, the edge of which is called the heliopause - the end of the Sun's influence. The region just inside that boundary is the heliosheath. That's where the Voyagers are now.

What is it like, out there in the heliosheath? Until now, scientists thought it was a calm environment with all the magnetic lines connecting back to the Sun. Particles from outside the solar system - Galactic Cosmic Rays - would enter the solar system and follow the magnetic lines to the Sun, passing by Earth on the way. The Earth's magnetic field largely deflects these cosmic rays, protecting both those of us on the surface and astronauts orbiting Earth from their deleterious radiation. Astronauts only need to worry about cosmic radiation when they leave Earth orbit and go to the Moon or elsewhere. Engineers do not know yet how to protect humans from cosmic rays. This has been one of the stumbling blocks in plans to return to the Moon for extended periods or travel further to asteroids or Mars.

Data from Voyager 1 and 2 paint a different picture of how cosmic rays enter the solar system, however. This new knowledge may or may not impact how human spacecraft are eventually designed, but scientists at a NASA media teleconference today were clearly excited about the new paradigm the data suggest. While couching the findings as a "possible" explanation of the data the spacecraft are reporting, Boston University's Merav Opher said she was "pretty confident" of her team's analysis.

The two spacecraft are racing out of the solar system in different directions. Voyager 1 first flew past Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 also passed by Neptune and Uranus. The two spacecraft are now 60 degrees apart in latitude, with Voyager 1 in the solar system's northern hemisphere and Voyager 2 in the southern hemisphere . The University of Maryland's James Drake said that it was the difference in the readings sent back by the two spacecraft that forced them to reexamine the theory that the heliosheath was homogenous and quiet. Instead, Voyager 2, in particular, sent data showing that it was entering and leaving areas of relative quiet and relative turbulence in terms of how many energetic particles it was encountering.

Describing the region as roiling around "like the most bubbly part of your Jacuzzi," Opher, Drake and renowned heliophysicist Gene Parker explained that it now seems that the edge of the solar system is a "sea of magnetic bubbles" that are unconnected to the Sun. Rather than calm, it is turbulent. Cosmic rays entering the solar system get trapped in the bubbles until they eventually find a magnetic line that is connected to the Sun, allowing them to continue their journey inward.

Parker, who developed the theory of the solar wind in 1958, emphasized that the finding would not make any difference with regard to human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. To him, the most important point is that the data call into question what the density of cosmic rays is beyond the heliopause. It could be much greater than theorized since fewer of the cosmic rays may be able to break through the heliopause, which in a sense is the solar system's line of defense. The turbulence of magnetic bubbles may throw some of them back into interstellar space.

The "warranty" on the Voyager spacecraft "has long since expired," joked NASA's program scientist Arik Posner, but he sees no reason they should not continue sending back data for at least five more years. The spacecraft use nuclear radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) to provide power for spacecraft systems and instruments. The power level today is akin to a small light bulb, and NASA's 70-meter Deep Space Network antennas are needed to receive the signals. Voyager 1 is 17.5 million kilometers from Earth, and Voyager 2 is 14.2 million kilometers away. It takes 32 hours and 26 hours for signals from Voyager 1 and 2 respectively to reach Earth.

NASA has another spacecraft, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), in Earth orbit that is studying the particles that get this far. Voyager 1 and 2 are the only spacecraft returning data directly from that region of space.

Events of Interest  

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


 

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